The View From Here

I pictured my adolescent son saying, with prim surprise: "You mean you never went to university?"
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My uneasiness at having missed out on a university education began when I was 24 and pregnant. A term of night classes in history at Birkbeck proved hopelessly incompatible with a social married life and a vastly increased girth; I sent in some ludicrous tissue of lies about having to go and live in South America, and was scorched by the kind letter which wished me well in my new life.

Five years later, the chip on my shoulder had grown to the size of a boulder. I pictured my adolescent son looking at me with prim surprise and saying: "You mean you never went to university?" It was bad enough knowing that all my husband's friends had. Being a reasonably successful historical novelist was no consolation. I felt as isolated as a rabbit in a lion cage. Every conversation I began was prefaced by an apologetic reference to my unscholarly education.

Luck put me next to Lord Annan, vice-chancellor of the University of London, at a dinner in 1978. Listening to the usual nervous disclaimer, he calmly said that it was about time I got on with it. An interview with the English department of Bedford College could be arranged. I nearly fell off my chair. Could life be so simply transformed?

Not quite. The interviewers were kind, but I needed a French A-level to qualify and we were bound for California after Christmas. I did my French course by correspondence and sat the exam in the bicycle shed of an obliging professor at UCLA.

An inglorious D grade allowed me to squeeze on to the course. In September 1979 I bicycled into Regent's Park to begin my new life as a full-time student.

I was, as it happened, the only mature student on the course. To our tutors and my new colleagues, it seemed a bit quaint that somebody who had published four novels felt such a desperate need to educate herself. The reason became clear when I started to submit essays. I had enough ideas to fuel a rocket, but I'd never learnt to construct an argument. The chief lesson I had to learn was of humility: to accept that a thesis has more to it than a string of unconnected observations, however perceptive these may be.

That was the down side. It isn't easy when you see yourself, in however modest a way, as an established writer, to find your painstaking submissions scoring a string of Cs while young colleagues who, you secretly believe, don't know half as much about Dickens and Henry James as you do, are being awarded As and Bs.

The up side - the reason I wanted to write this piece - is a lot more important. At 18, I wouldn't even have known which subject I wanted to read. Social life, after a rather quiet country upbringing, would have seemed hugely preferable to study, and I doubt I would have worked harder than was strictly necessary.

Twelve years on, I knew exactly why I was reading English. I knew what I wanted from the course and that, if I worked hard enough, I could get it. I never missed a lecture, a seminar or a tutorial. From the outside, I must have looked like a glutton for punishment. On the inside, I glowed with a sense of purpose I had rarely known. An understanding husband and an obliging nanny made life relatively easy. All I had to do was to put my nose to the grindstone and ease the financial side by writing one more historical novel before I finished the course.

The last year was the toughest. The obliging nanny left at midnight with a dashing Iranian and some of my favourite clothes, right in the middle of revision for finals. Miraculously, Eric appeared, a deceptively glum- faced Danish boy who took my small son busking at Marble Arch and taught him to rollerskate. Thankfully, I went back to my files and notes.

The fear of failure was dreadful. Not to get an English degree, at the age of 33, was a humiliation not to be contemplated. But I was notoriously slow in exams. All through the spring term, I sat with a clock on my desk, writing against it, wondering how all those 18-year-olds could cover 30 sides of paper in as many minutes while I struggled to cover two.

Reader, I passed. And well. Lord Annan's signature was a neat flourish on the bottom of my diploma sheet. I wonder if - I hope - he saw my name and allowed himself a nod of satisfaction.

No book I have written has given me more satisfaction than the gaining of a degree. If I had my life again, I would unhesitatingly choose to have back those three arduous, dedicated years before Bedford College merged with Royal Holloway in 1981. They were three of the best years of my lifen

The writer is a novelist and critic. Her most recent book is `On the Edge: a life of Robert Graves' (Doubleday, 1995).